To avoid having to go to my high school homecoming, I got a job as the movie-theater projectionist in Horseshoe Bend.
My faltering relationship with a girl at school — which began two years earlier at homecoming — was circling the drain, and I didn’t want to prolong the inevitable. Instead of looking forward to moving to the sounds of Donna Summer, Elton John and Fleetwood Mac at homecoming that fall of 1978, we were already dancing the steps of teenage angst and heartbreak.
So, I heard of an opening at the Music Mountain Theater, and I applied quickly. I began training the night before the big dance, learning how to splice previews onto the reels of films and how to switch the two arc-lamp projectors to go from one reel to another with a smooth transition.
Back then, movie companies shipped film on plastic reels in metal containers. Each reel contained about 20 minutes of film. Generally, when adding in previews, a 100-minute long movie would play on six reels, meaning there were five changeovers between the two projectors. A bell would ring indicating there were two minutes before the change.
It allowed the projectionist to fire up the alternate projector and watch for the “cue dots,” the circles that flashed on the right hand of the screen to indicate there were eight seconds before the switch needed to be made.
“It’s complicated. It takes about two weeks to learn this,” said the fellow training me.
“Great. When do I start?” I asked.
Seemed the trainer, who was also a student at my school, wanted to go to homecoming with my girlfriend. News traveled fast at small schools where everyone knew everyone, and word of our impending breakup was trending.
While others donned their tuxedos and gowns for the big school dance, I got a bucket of popcorn slathered in butter and began what I referred to as my career in show business. I don’t remember that first movie, but it went well enough that I kept the job. Soon, I began running the Horseshoe Bend movies on weekends, holidays and school breaks.
I saw some dogs at the theater. I must have seen Wanda Nevada, the 1979 bomb starring Brooke Shields, five or six times; one night I ran that movie to three customers. One told me he didn’t care what was showing; he just came inside the theater for the air conditioning.
I also ran Malibu High, an awful high school exploitation film, and Goin’ South, a grungy western starring John Belushi and Jack Nicholson.
I showed the Richard Benjamin, Susan Saint James and George Hamilton movie, Love at First Bite, so many times I memorized the script. Later, when I watched it on television, I could tell when the two-minute projector bell would ring.
But there were also great films. I ran the Academy Award-winning The Deer Hunter, turning up the sound to ear-splitting levels when the bombs began falling in Vietnam in a jump cut after a lengthy wedding scene to startle the moviegoers awake. And, speaking of the late Belushi, I was able to watch the classic Animal House several times. Once, I mixed up the film reels, showing the fifth reel before the fourth reel. The accident didn’t alter the movie at all, and when I ran the fourth reel after the fifth, the story continued on seamlessly.
A few times, I didn’t turn the projector’s motor on quickly enough, and patrons were treated to a widescreen showing of a 35mm film cell melting. It looked like the backdrop of a Grateful Dead concert.
I held the job until I went off to college that fall of 1979. It was a decent position, paying the minimum wage of $2.30 an hour while I watched movies, and I had all the popcorn I could eat. I felt grown up with responsibilities. Without me, those three people couldn’t enjoy the cool of the theater and watch Coming Home or F.I.S.T. or Skatetown, U.S.A.
I am a dinosaur when it comes to movie theaters. Times have changed, and the theaters aren’t what they used to be. First, they no longer use the 20-minute reels, evolving from large platters that contained much more film to digital. Theaters also are fading out due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the virus, most theaters closed or showed films to limited capacities for more than a year.
The Regal movie chain shut all 536 of its movie houses in the United States in October, and only a handful of states have lifted all social-distancing seating restrictions in theaters. Movie companies are also releasing films directly to subscriber television services as a result of the virus, letting customers watch them at home rather than going to the theaters.
I’m happily married now, which is a good thing. I don’t think I could find any projectionist jobs to avoid homecomings and other dates anymore.
Kenneth Heard is a contributor to Arkansas Money & Politics and its sister publication, AY About You, and works for the Craighead County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. He had been the Jonesboro bureau correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from 1998 to 2017 and has more than 30 years of experience in journalism. Ken and his wife, Holly, live in Jonesboro and still like watching movies.